Today, Facebooking. The University of Houston’s Music School presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, we live “amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.” It was in that spirit of superficiality that my wife and I joined the social networking website Facebook. Okay, true confessions: we joined to keep tabs on our teenage daughter. But Facebook also seemed like a massively efficient way to communicate with friends. You post a few sentences; your inmost thoughts, a one-liner, or the local weather. If anyone takes the bait, they “comment” on your post. It’s a conversation, right?
Well, sort of. I had originally imagined Facebook to be the latest technological update upon a few dozen millennia of communication techniques. Such as — working backwards now — twittering, texting, e-mailing, telephoning, telegraphing, letter-writing, hieroglyphs, petroglyphs, or heaven forbid, that archaic time-honored method of actually getting off your duff and visiting the clan one cave over.
But Facebooking is none of the above. It’s more like having your own minimalist online newspaper. You publish, and your Facebook friends publish, and the result is a custom-made ever-changing wire service. Log on and join the flow. It’s one big party. I can’t say it’s not fun. But there’s something eerie about it as well. For one thing, everyone’s newsfeed is different. Your friends’ “Friends” aren’t the same as your friends, so everyone is attending a different party. Then there’s a time-warping, peculiar telescoping effect: you just reconnected with someone you haven’t heard from in 30 years, and suddenly you’re up to speed on what they had for dinner last night. But what exactly is appropriate to write about? Do we really want to read our friends’ inmost political and religious views at eight in the morning? Or ever? I could brag about my spouse and kids, but not everyone has a spouse and kids, so maybe they’re not interested. Worse, maybe they’re annoyed. Now if you were actually writing a particular person, you’d tailor your remarks accordingly. But Facebook requires a curiously generic sort of self-censorship. You’re addressing the crowd.
So maybe Facebook is less a mode of personal communication than it is a medium all of its own. Communications guru Marshall McCluhan couldn’t have predicted way back in the 1960s how well his “medium is the message” mantra would apply to networking sites such as Facebook. McCluhan said that form always trumps content when it comes to mass communication. Linguists and psychologists have increasingly come down on his side: what we say is inextricably tied to how we choose to say it. I sometimes wonder if Facebook is the ultimate solipsism, that weirdly narcissistic state where we think we’re communicating with our friends but are actually just heaving virtual message-in-bottles into the cyber-ocean. But then a friend somewhere in the world will comment back on one of my infrequent posts. Maybe they’ll even make me laugh out loud, LOL. Then I know we really are communicating...albeit on the slipperiest of surfaces.
I’m Roger Kaza, from the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.
In fairness to the multi-faceted Facebook, the site also offers other, more personalized options than those highlighted above, such as messages, photos, games, groups, and birthday notifications.
TIME magazine’s May 31, 2010 cover story concerns Facebook and privacy issues.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.